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Going beyond our solar system

06 April 2011

Stars-1- WEBImage shows an artists' impressions of exoplanets

Two undergraduate students from the School of Physics and Astronomy have made the first detection with a Welsh telescope of planets outside of our solar system.

Chris Fuller and Jon Rees, two third-year students studying astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy, used the University's Observatory 0.4-metre telescope, on the roof of the Physics Building to detect the exoplanets.

Exoplanets are very difficult to see directly because their parent stars are so bright. They are so far away that the light from the star and the planet merge together.

However, when the planet passes in front of its parent star, the star appears to dim slightly, and the dimming allows scientists to infer the presence of a planet and calculate its size. The effect is very difficult to detect. It is like trying to see a fly pass in front of a light bulb from several miles away. The planets that the Cardiff students have observed are known as WASP-12 and HAT-P-20.

They are of similar size to Jupiter but in much closer orbits around their parent stars. Each has a temperature of approximately 10,000 degrees Centigrade. They must therefore be extremely inhospitable to any known form of life. WASP-12 is 475 light-years from Earth, while HAT-P-20 is 230 light-years away.

Chris Fuller said "I was amazed that we could detect distant planets orbiting other stars from a telescope in the middle of Cardiff." Jon Rees added: "It is remarkable to be able to see distant worlds and work out what conditions must be like there."

The work was carried out as part of the students' regular undergraduate project work. Their project supervisor, Professor Derek Ward-Thompson, said: "It is excellent to see the students having the opportunity to carry out research level work as part of their undergraduate projects".

Head of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Walter Gear, added: "This is yet another example of the buoyant state of Physics at Cardiff University."

Earlier this week Cardiff University announced an increase in numbers in Physics. From October 2011 there will be four new academic lecturing staff members and 35 extra undergraduate student places in Physics.

Professor Gear said: "The University has shown great support for Physics by giving us the additional staff members and increased undergraduate numbers. The future of Physics in Cardiff is looking very bright".

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